How Do You Tell a Renaissance Man from a Bum These Days?

Feeling locked into a career choice?
Photo courtesy of Jhayne Holmes

I’m not a great fan of chit-chat at the best of times, but one of the questions I really hate answering is “so, what do you do?” Most people think it’s a simple question, but for me the answer is pretty complicated. I do a range of things, and the range varies from year to year, or sometimes even month to month. A lot of people find this difficult to understand, and often assume that “I dabble in various pursuits” is a euphemism either for mafia involvement or chronic unemployment.

When I came up through the education system, a jack-of-all-trades was definitely seen as a master of none.  The only accepted “right” way to go about choosing a career was to pick something and stick with it, to go as far as you could in one field while ignoring everything else.  If you had several interests you wanted to pursue and weren’t willing to give up any of them, you weren’t seen as ambitious – you were seen as flaky, wishy-washy, and unable to commit. The question of “what do you do?” was supposed to have a one-word answer, end of story.

Fast-forward to the present day: this attitude is slowly changing. It’s becoming more common for people to cast nets in several directions, and then use the knowledge they gain through experience to move on and explore other avenues of interest. Even ten years ago, confusion was pretty much the universal response when I said, “I’m working on several things right now.” These days, I’m encountering more and more people nodding and saying, “yeah, me too.”

What’s more, companies are starting to perceive the Renaissance employee as being flexible and diverse rather than wishy-washy, and there’s much less stigma surrounding a desire to do many things. That desire, after all, does not necessarily indicate a tendency toward laziness; many energetic and accomplished people find it difficult to settle on one particular area of work.

Does that mean that by doing lots of things, you’ll never be a real expert in anything? Not necessarily. If we use Dr. K. Anders Ericsson’s “10,000-hour rule” as a general guideline, given a 40-hour week, it takes approximately five years of study and applied effort to become an expert in any particular field. Obviously this measurement can vary depending on your natural proclivities, but even if we use a conservative estimate of being able to master three professions in a twenty-year period, that’s still two more than most people take on in a lifetime.

If you’re less concerned with being at the absolute top of your field in everything you do, and more concerned with simply enjoying a wide range of experiences, you can do even more. You don’t have to be the number one world leader at something to make decent money or be respected for your ability level.

If you only have one passion in life, great, go for it.  If you have several, that’s also great – there’s no reason you can’t go for all of them, and it may even help you out in the job market when a potential employer sees that you are bringing more than one set of skills to the table.

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